(alternately titled; “you can’t reach ’em all.”)
This morning, in my public speaking class, I gave my students the first two pages of Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening statement to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. This speech is one of my most favorite pieces of writing, and I wanted to find an opportunity to slip it into my students’ experiences in this class.
We had been talking about what makes for an effective introduction to a speech; how does a speaker simultaneously acknowledge his or her audience, grab the attention of that audience, and preview his or her speech without saying things like “today, I’m going to talk to you about…”? We threw some ideas onto the board under the headings of “the good,” “the bad,” and “the ugly,” and the student filled in the spaces with qualities they felt would fit those descriptions. The class determined that a strong story, a collection of compelling facts, or an interesting example might make for a good introduction, and I instantly thought of the Jackson speech. I hadn’t planned on using the speech today, so I ran downstairs during the break and printed off a copy from a computer in the adjuncts’ offices. God/dess, but I do love the internet!
I’d first come in contact with Justice Jackson’s Nuremberg statement after teaching a Holocaust unit to high school freshmen during my internship. My cooperating teacher and I were using TNT’s production of Nuremberg in the classroom, and I distinctly remember being blown away by Alec Baldwin, who played Jackson in the film, reading excerpts from the opening speech. The entire work is nearly 40 pages long – the filmmakers chose about three paragraphs for the actor to read – but even just those three, non-sequential paragraphs were exceedingly powerful. I remember going home that afternoon, finding the entire text of the speech online, and reading through it in one sitting. My opinion of Justice Jackson is that he was a singularly brilliant thinker, writer, and speaker, and I’ve never come across anything of his that has served to diminish that opinion in the least.
My students and I went through the first two paragraphs in class:
The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
This Tribunal, while it is novel and experimental, is not the product of abstract speculations nor is it created to vindicate legalistic theories. This inquest represents the practical effort of four of the most mighty of nations, with the support of 17 more, to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times-aggressive war. The common sense of mankind demands that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched. It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors.
What I find so profoundly interesting about the part of the lesson that involved this speech is that the students had such widely varying reactions to it. A couple of them were, as I was, completely and totally taken in; they were astounded by the eloquence and flow of the writing. One student said that every word was perfect; that the language was almost indescribable in how well it did what it did. The students who were in awe of Jackson’s words commented that he did, in those first two paragraphs, a lot of the things that good introductions were supposed to do; he introduced his topic (first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world), he addressed his audience (It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors), he previewed material that he would cover later and in more depth in the body of his speech (wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish), and he did it all in a way that neither left the audience scratching their heads in confusion nor spoon-fed them as if they were incapable of comprehension.
Others in the class did feel as though they were scratching their heads, though. A few days ago, I wrote a piece about how much smarter (some) students are than than they give themselves credit for being. I had at least two students in this morning’s class who didn’t believe they were smart enough for this material. They couldn’t grasp the language and couldn’t understand how the words fit together to express Jackson’s topic and purpose. They gave up after the first few sentences and essentially shut down for the rest of the lesson, and no amount of my assurance that they were, indeed, smart enough to appreciate this had any effect on them.
I understand that I can’t reach every student all the time. I understand that the students who felt lost in today’s class may well have taken something away today that they’ll find useful in the future; that not every lesson is immediately and obviously recognizable. I can’t help but feel a little twinge of disappointment, though, that I wasn’t able to adequately convey my deep and abiding respect and admiration for this piece to those students who didn’t see it, and that I wasn’t able to convince them that they were smart enough to engage in this incredible snapshot of history.